Differences between France and Prussia over the possible accession to the Spanish throne of a German candidate—whom France opposed—was the French pretext to declare the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Due to their defensive treaties, joint southern-German and Prussian troops repelled French troops which had occupied Saarbrücken and proceeded to invade France in August 1870. After a few weeks, the French army was forced to capitulate in the fortress of Sedan. French Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner and the Second French Empire collapsed. Months after the Siege of Paris was lifted, the Peace Treaty of Frankfurt was signed: France was obliged to cede what became known as Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.
Picture 1: United German Empire in 1900
During the Siege of Paris, the German princes assembled in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles and proclaimed the Prussian King Wilhelm I as the “German Emperor” on January 18, 1871. The German Empire was thus founded, with 25 states, three of which were Hanseatic free cities, and Bismarck, again, served as Chancellor. It was dubbed the “Little German” solution, since Austria was not included. Beginning in 1884 Germany established several colonies. The young emperor’s foreign policy was opposed to that of Bismarck, who had established a system of alliances in the era called Gründerzeit, securing Germany’s position as a great nation, isolating France using diplomatic means, and avoiding war for decades. Under Wilhelm II, however, Germany took an imperialistic course, not unlike other powers, but it led to friction with neighboring countries. Most alliances in which Germany had been previously involved were not renewed, and new alliances excluded the country. Specifically, France established new relations by signing the Entente Cordiale with the United Kingdom, and established ties with Russia. Austria-Hungary and Germany became increasingly isolated.
Although not one of the main causes, the assassination of Austria’s crown prince helped trigger World War I on July 28, 1914, which saw Germany as part of the unsuccessful Central Powers in the second-bloodiest conflict of all time against the Allied Powers. The beginning of war was thus presented in authoritarian Germany as the chance for the nation to secure “our place under the sun” as the Kaiser Wilhelm II put it, which was readily supported by the prevailing nationalism of the public.
Picture 2: Kaiser Wilhelm II
It soon became apparent that Germany was not prepared for a war lasting more than a few months. At first, little was done to regulate the economy for a wartime footing, and the German war economy would remain badly organized throughout the war. Germany depended on imports of food and raw materials, which were stopped by the British Naval blockade of Germany. Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. The winter of 1916–17 was called “turnip winter.” During the war, about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition. Even more died after the war, as the Allied blockade was not ended until the summer of 1919. In November 1918, the second German Revolution broke out, and Emperor Wilhelm II and all German ruling princes abdicated. An armistice was signed on November 11, putting an end to the war.
Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The treaty’s unexpectedly high demands were perceived as humiliating in Germany, as a continuation of the war by other means, and as a break with traditional post-war diplomacy that included negotiations between the victors and vanquished. Germany was to cede Alsace-Lorraine, Eupen-Malmédy, North Schleswig, and the Memel area. Poland was restored and most of the provinces of Posen and West Prussia, and some areas of Upper Silesia were reincorporated into the reformed country after plebiscites and independence uprisings. All German colonies were to be handed over to the Allies. The left and right banks of the Rhine were to be permanently demilitarized. The industrially important Saarland was to be governed by the League of Nations for 15 years and its coalfields administered by France. At the end of that time a plebiscite was to determine the Saar’s future status. To ensure execution of the treaty’s terms, Allied troops would occupy the left (German) bank of the Rhine for a period of 5–15 years. The German army was to be limited to 100,000 officers and men; the general staff was to be dissolved; vast quantities of war material were to be handed over and the manufacture of munitions rigidly curtailed. The navy was to be similarly reduced, and no military aircraft were allowed. Germany and its allies were to accept the sole responsibility of the war, and were to pay financial reparations for all loss and damage suffered by the Allies.